Today's guest is professional writer and editor, Don McNair. He's sharing a bit about his newest book, Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave.
Don will be giving away winner's choice of any of his backlist books to a lucky commentor during the tour. Make sure to leave an e-maill address with your comment below if you want a chance to win. And if you'd like to increase your chances, you can visit other tour stops Don is making and leave comments there.
Don McNair spent his working life editing magazines (eleven years), producing public relations materials for an international PR company (six years), and heading his own marketing communications firm, McNair Marketing Communications (twenty-one years). His creativity has won him three Golden Trumpets for best industrial relations programs from the Publicity Club of Chicago, a certificate of merit award for a quarterly magazine he wrote and produced, and the Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil. The latter is comparable to the Emmy and Oscar in other industries.
Don has written and placed hundreds of trade magazine articles and four published non-fiction how-to books. He considers his latest, Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave, to be the cap of his forty-year writing and editing career. It’s an easy-to-use editing manual that helps writers edit, step by step, their first chapter, then use the knowledge gained to edit the rest of their work.
Don has also written six novels; two young adults (Attack of the Killer Prom Dresses and The Long Hunter), three romantic suspenses (Mystery on Firefly Knob, Mystery at Magnolia Mansion, and co-authored Waiting for Backup!), and a romantic comedy (BJ, Milo, and the Hairdo from Heck). All are published internationally, and are available at his website, http://DonMcNair.com .
Don, a member of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and the Editorial Freelancers Association, now concentrates on editing novels for others. He teaches two online editing classes.
Welcome, Don. Please tell us about your current release.
My newest book, released April 1 by Quill Drivers Books, is titled Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Agents and Publishers Crave. It’s based on what I’ve learned in my lifelong career of writing and editing. I was a magazine editor for eleven years, a public relations professional for a major PR company for six, and ran my own marketing communications company for 21.
What inspired you to write this book?
The idea for it came several years ago on a flight from Chicago to Atlanta, where I was to research an article for a client. Out of boredom I was reading a fog-filled paperback, and realized the same editing mistakes appeared over and over. I was intrigued. I bought another paperback at the Atlanta airport and edited it on the way home. A pattern emerged, and I became excited. Had I discovered the writer’s Rosetta stone?
Over the next several months I edited many other paperback novels. I joined critique groups, judged writing contests, figuratively tackled new writers on the streets, aggressively editing their fiction. I next plowed through all those manuscripts from pre-published authors and the marked-up paperback books I'd tossed into a dresser drawer and painstakingly sorted thousands of offending sentences and other problems by type. I eventually identified 21 distinct problems. Today I call their solutions, appropriately enough, the 21 Steps to Fog-Free Writing.
The inference staggered me. Just as there are a specific number of elements in chemistry’s Periodic Table and letters in the alphabet, there’s also a specific number of fog problems in writing. I realized many unnecessary words are actually tips of bad-writing icebergs, and that eliminating them resolves otherwise complicated editing problems. In fact, almost half the Steps actually strengthen action while shortening sentences.
Does the book cover things other than taking words out?
Yes. Taking them out was my initial thrust, but I soon realized putting words in properly was as important. So I divided the book into three sections: Putting Words In, Taking Words Out, and Sharing Your Words. The latter discusses finding and working with critique partners, professional editors, publishers, and agents.
How did you know your editing system worked?
Because I field-tested it in two online writing classes, over three years. One was “Editor-Proof That First Chapter” (putting words in), the other was “21 Steps to Fog-Free Writing” (taking words out). The feedback was phenomenal, and I realized I was on to something. I include comments from enthused students in the book’s opening pages.
Unpublished writer “Barbara Stevens” asked me to critique and edit her newest unpublished novel’s first chapter. “I’ve written twelve other manuscripts,” she said, “and they’ve been rejected a lot of times. I hope you can figure out what’s wrong.”
Well, I did figure it out, and quickly. This lady was basically a good writer. Her blogs sparkled, she dreamed up creative plots, and her heart was certainly in her work. But she’d made a major craft mistake in that chapter and, presumably, in all twelve of those manuscripts. It was a mistake that almost guaranteed she’d never be published.
We discussed her problem (we’ll get back to that later), and the light bulb over her head glowed brilliantly. She rewrote that first chapter and I edited it again, and, as if by magic, it became publishable. Barbara used her new-found knowledge to revise the rest of that manuscript, followed by her twelve other novels. Within two months she sold one, and she’s now been published many times. She’s on her way.
The point? Barbara’s breakthrough came directly from correcting that one craft mistake. She’d made it time and time again and was destined to repeat it again and again, until someone told her what it was.
You may be making that same mistake. Or perhaps you’re making another equally deadly one—mistakes we’ll identify and resolve in this book—and are not aware of it. But there’s hope.
There are other self-editing books out there. In what ways is yours different? Better?
From my viewpoint as a professional fiction editor, the biggest roadblock most writers have is simply this: They have no clue about what their editing problems are! And if they don’t know them, how can they solve them?
There’s a lot of advice out there, of course, but I found that little of it is of practical value to the beginning writer. Most editing manuals are like geography books that give great information but don’t show how to get from place to place. They’re like dictionaries from which one is asked to select words to write the Great American Novel. Well, if you don’t know what your writing problems are, how do you know what in those big books you should apply?
What writers need first, before they delve into bucketsful of unrelated jargon, is a practical way to identify their specific editing problems. And that’s the premise of the new book. It helps writers identify their problems, Step by Step, then shows them how to resolve each one.
Would you give us an example of how your “21 Step” editing system works?
Using this system is simple. Readers apply the 21 Steps one at a time, to only the first chapter of their Work in Progress or that manuscript publishers insist on returning to them. Then, based on that experience, they’ll finish the manuscript.
Step 3 of the 21 Steps, for example, involves changing passive voice to active voice. They’ll read an explanation and examples of the problem, then read a “Fog Alert!” sidebar that shows several more before-after examples. Next they’ll edit ten problem sentences, and check themselves against solutions in the back of the book. After every two or three Steps they’ll edit a mini-chapter of “Sarah’s Perils,” a tongue-in-cheek melodrama, to find and fix the problems they just studied. Finally, they’ll search their own manuscript’s first chapter for passive sentences—they now know what to look for—and change them to active. With many Steps they’ll learn how to use their word processor’s “search” function to find the problems.
When they’re done with all the Steps, they’ll have a sparkling first chapter ready for that publisher. Now they simply apply that same knowledge to the rest of their manuscript. Students using the 21-Step method in my classes were delighted with the results. They know that every manuscript they write from now on will be clearer and more compelling than any they’ve ever written, for two reasons: they won’t make most of those mistakes in the first place, and they’ll know exactly what to look for when they self-edit. Past students today tell me they refer to those lessons daily as they write. I believe most of the book’s users will keep it next to their word processors.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I remember that day vividly. I was in grade school, and the teacher asked us to write a story about Mother’s Day. I turned mine in and the next day the teacher told the class what a great job I’d done, and proceeded to read it. After class a cute little girl with brown curls came up to me and said, “Donnie, I loved your story.” My brain turned to mush and dribbled out my ears, and I was afraid of girls for years after.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Well, I enjoyed writing, and made up stories for years. But back in the fifties, when I hit puberty and tried to look into the murky future, I told myself I wanted to be the world’s foremost cartoonist. I became the cartoonist for my high school's newspaper, and later for my college paper.
I joined a magazine's editing staff after college and toiled as an editor and writer ever since. In the sixties I drew a daily comic strip called Paradise Park, which featured the goings on in a city park. I offered it to the syndicates, and learned their estimation of its value differed from mine. A couple months ago, while cleaning out a storage shed, I ran across those strips. Hey, they didn't look bad! Just for grins, I’ve featured the strips on my website. You can find them at http://DonMcNair.com .
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’ve written six novels and four how-to books, but my current work is editing for others. I roll out of bed and hit the computer, and work until lunch. I enjoy being able to work from home, doing something I love. When I worked for the magazines and PR agencies I did so in suit and tie, and attended conferences and board meetings, and had to be my best every day. I consider that experience the penitence for what I do now.
Do you have any writing quirks?
Unlike many writers, I keep track of my time in fifteen-minute increments, and that keeps me on target. I picked up that habit in my previous working life, where I billed my work out to my clients in fifteen-minute chunks. It was a good way to keep the muse working with me—and defeating writers’ block—since I had to justify my time with a detailed report of progress.
Thank you, Don.
Readers, don't forget to leave an e-mail with a comment below if you'd like a chance to win your choice of any book from Don's backlist. And if you'd like to increase your chances, you can visit other tour stops Don is making and leave comments there.